Dead Island has had one hell of a launch week, from releasing the Xbox candidate version for the PC, a controversial skill name and turning off the multiplayer servers for two days. Now that things have settled down, it's time to do some vacationing. Dead Island tries to emulate Darksiders' success, by combining mechanics from several popular games to create something unique; however it doesn't go far enough to establish itself.
From looking at the mention of "4 player co-op" and the word "island" in the title, most gamers would think that Dead Island is similar to Left 4 Dead and Just Cause 2. However, from playing the game, it takes its cues from Borderlands and Dead Rising 2. The story is zombie game standard: zombies have broken out on an island resort and you are one of the few people immune to them, which leaves you to do all the dangerously stupid interacting with the undead.
The game is open world, as each act takes place in a huge piece of real estate. Quests involve players going from point A to point B and either killing something, using something, or taking something back to point A. As you can tell, there isn't a lot of variety in the missions. Weapons take the form of everyday items like hammers, knives and later on, guns.
Taking a cue from Borderlands, weapons have levels attached to them which determine their base stats, a level five paddle is worse than a level ten paddle (I guess they use better wood.) As you explore the world you'll comes across items ranked in terms of rarity, which means eventually using your super rare purple hammer to fight the undead. Weapons deteriorate with use; forcing players to keep a supply of weapons on hand, with bladed weapons seem to break quicker. Besides weapons, you'll find random junk and money all over the place. Money is used along with junk at upgrade benches as well as at traders to buy items.
The upgrade bench is where a bit of Dead Rising 2 comes into play. Weapons can be repaired and upgraded at the bench, for a cost. Rare weapons cost more to upgrade, but will of course be more powerful than their regular counterparts. You can also combine weapons with the junk you find to create new weapons from blueprints that are either found or rewarded. These weapons have even higher stats and using a very rare weapon as the base can give you one hell of an edge.
Now while all of this sounds good so far, Dead Island runs into some issues with the implementation of the game mechanics. First is with leveling up, as you kill zombies and complete quests, you'll gain experience which will eventually give you a level up. With each level you can assign a point into one of the three skill trees (each character has the same three trees, but different upgrades on them). The problem is that this does nothing to change the game play.
Each character is proficient with a type of weapon (bladed, blunt, firearms, and throwing), but no matter what skill tree you go up, there is no real change to the gameplay. The only exception is the "fury" skills which are unique abilities that each character has, the rest of the skills are small modifiers like "+5 to durability" or "+ 10 to damage". As characters level up, they may unlock other abilities, but it doesn't do much to change their interaction with the world. You are going to be slashing and bashing zombies in the same manner from level 1 to level 50. Further adding to the sameness of the gameplay are the weapons themselves.
While the developers tried to emulate Borderlands with the variety of weapons, it doesn't work here. Besides the weapon mods, there is no real difference between how weapons of the same type behave. A level 10 hammer and a level 50 hammer will look, animate and attack the same way. In Borderlands each type of weapon was further differentiated by the fictional gun manufacturer. Each manufacturer had different variations of weapons, one pistol may have a built in scope, and another may have rapid fire. This meant that no two guns were alike and this helps give a lot of variety to the weapons.
Also, for a game that is about scavenging items to survive, I was really surprised that the developers didn't take the RPG elements further with being able to fashion other equipment like armor or enhancements for weapons. Anything to allow players to further personalize their characters would have helped the game out.
Melee combat is unsatisfying, especially having been spoiled by Condemned 2. In Dead Island, your actions in combat amount to: one type of swing, fury mode, throwing the weapon and your kick attacks. The only interesting element has to do with stamina, which depletes when you are attacked or when you are attacking. Run out of stamina and you won't be able to attack and you'll be knocked to the ground when injured. This makes fighting groups of zombies very dangerous and a good way of providing tension when running around.
It's a shame that the melee combat lacks depth, as the developers’ implemented location based damage. Hit a zombie enough times with a blunt weapon to break a limb, or with a bladed to cut it off. This becomes a potential strategy when dealing with larger zombies (which are like mini bosses,) to make it easier to finish them off. Watching zombies fall apart from your attacks is cool, but it would have been more satisfying with a deeper combat system.
The game tries to mix things up when guns are thrown into the mix, but ranged combat is just as unsatisfying. Guns also have levels to them and no discernible difference other then the stats. Be prepared to run around to each dead enemy after a firefight to see if their pistol is any better than yours. Gun control is more on the arcade side of things and due to ammo limits, keeps you from relying solely on guns. Zombies also take more than one shot to the head to bring down, meaning that you will go through ammo fast.
While the zombie models are varied, in terms of size and shape, there isn't a big difference in fighting them. The as mentioned larger zombies sometimes appear, but due to the simple combat, don’t give the player a lot of options for fighting them. Another design mistake has to do with leveling up. Besides the weapons, zombies also have levels to them, which are unfortunately tied to the player's level. What that means is that the world levels with the player.
This hurts the game as the only difference between levels is the damage and health of zombies. It also kills the sense of exploring and running into a higher level zombie, or coming back to an area after leveling up more. Speaking about leveling up, because of zombies leveling up with the player, it also means that the player will level up faster as the game goes on as the experience grows with higher level zombies. It took more time to level up from 1 to 2, and then it did to go from 2 to 3 for instance. Because the world levels up with the player it also kills the chance of finding higher level items as chests will only spawn items around your level (unless you join a game with a friend who is a higher level.) For a game that tries to add RPG elements to the design, they did not get it right.
The final set of problems comes from the game being developed for the console first, PC second. The interface is cumbersome, mouse controls aren't fully utilized and push-to-talk is nonexistent. One poor example of the UI is that if you pull up the map, in an area where there is no map information, the mouse pointer disappears, preventing you from clicking to other sections of the inventory. While not a huge issue, it's just more proof that the game was designed for consoles first.
Ultimately, Dead Island has some good ideas with the damage model, world and 4 player co-op, but the rest of the foundation is shaky. The designers tried to follow in the same shoes as Borderlands with its "Role Playing Shooter" elements, but where Borderlands gets it right, Dead Island stumbles around (pun intended.)